John Peter Zenger - History

In the early 1730’s, the Colony of New York was under the jurisdiction of Governor William Cosby. The New York Weekly Journal, America’s first independent political paper, became critical of the Governor after he replaced Lewis Morris, the Chief Justice of New York, for deciding a lawsuit against the Governor. 

The critical articles were authored by James Alexander, the founder and editorialist of the New York Weekly Journal, and printed by John Peter Zenger. Alas, it was the hapless printer who was sued by the Governor “for printing and publishing several seditious libels dispersed throughout his journals or newspapers, entitled The New York Weekly Journal; as having in them many things tending to raise factions and tumults among the people of this Province, inflaming their minds with contempt of His Majesty's government, and greatly disturbing the peace thereof” (Bench Warrant for Arrest of John Peter Zenger, November 2, 1734).

Zenger was defended by Philadelphia attorney Andrew Hamilton, who argued that the published statements could not be libelous if they were true. English law at the time, which was designed to protect the government from critical elements, dictated that truth was not a defense to libel. The jury, however, exonerated Zenger thereby establishing an ongoing central tenet to defamation law: that truth is an absolute defense. This decision proved to not only redefine the law of libel and slander but also to lay the foundation for the freedom of the press that we enjoy today.

Although Zenger did not author the articles critical of the Royal Governor he endured jail (bail was set inordinately high) during the proceedings. In addition, his wife continued to publish The New York Weekly Journal during his incarceration.